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How the Web is used in the Middle East

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Morning Edition
Tuesday, May 14, 2002


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Sreenath Sreenivasan
Host Bob Edwards talks with Sreenath Sreenivasan about the role the Internet has played in the Middle East conflict. The Columbia University Professor of New Media explains how to navigate through misinformation to get accurate news on the current situation. (3:33)

National Public Radio

Professor Sreenath Sreenivasan talks about the role the Internet is playing in the Middle East conflict

BOB EDWARDS, host:

In the ongoing Middle East conflict, the Internet is a source of information and confusion. It can be difficult to tell what's reliable, as all sides use the Web as a forum for passionate communication, persuasion and debate. Sreenath Sreenivasan, is a new media professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism. He warns Internet surfers should beware.

Professor SREENATH SREENIVASAN (New Media, Columbia University): Palestinians are using it to mobilize the world and world opinion rather than just internally. Because, let's face it, not a lot of people in a developing area of the world have access to the Internet. So it's used mainly to put pressure on outsiders, on supporters who might be outside the area and get people to think about what's happening and get out their point of view. And the Israelis are doing the same thing. Of course, there are many more Israelis, percentagewise, who are online than there are in almost any other country.

EDWARDS: So how do you know who to believe?

Prof. SREENIVASAN: You need to, when you see a Web site, look for things on the Web site that you might know a little something about. Look for the facts maybe in the history section of a particular Web site, something you know that happened that isn't open to interpretation and find that one thing--we call that a fact check that you want to do. And if you say, 'Well, if that fact is right, then maybe the rest of it is reasonably accurate.' You may also want to look for players that are outside the region but have an interest. So for example, the Council on Foreign Relations, the American council here, has a Web site called terrorismanswers.com that has been built just to answer questions about terrorism and answers a lot of things about the Middle East, for example, from an American point of view. There will be people who live in other countries who think that's not exactly a neutral point of view either, but at least as an American trying to understand.

EDWARDS: How is misinformation used and what's it look like?

Prof. SREENIVASAN: Misinformation sometimes is very scary because you go in there, you will see photographs of grisly deaths and death scenes. We don't know if those happened two months ago, two years ago or even if they're real. But when you see some of that, it's a problem. I have also seen very recently video that purports to be video of Daniel Pearl--the slain journalist, his execution. That's floating around the Internet. And those kind of things, we don't know what that is, and it is being used, for example, in the Daniel Pearl case, which is not, obviously, directly the Middle East, but it's being used as propaganda. And that video may not be real. We hope it's not real that's available and it's available to any young child who goes online and knows where to look.

EDWARDS: Or some young child may have originated it. I mean, so much of what I see there is unsigned, undated. You don't know where it comes from.

Prof. SREENIVASAN: And that's a problem. What we want to do is try to--one of the conventions of people who are teaching how to make Web pages--we keep telling people, 'Please put last updated on your Web site,' so at least we know that. Even if we don't know how much to trust the Web site, at least we know when was the last time this information was updated. Put sources on there. This is a problem that teachers are having in classrooms because students are just downloading articles and things. Teachers are trying to find standards and other people who are trying to deal with information. We're not getting away from this. The Internet is not going away, but if we can all just learn to cut through some of it, maybe we will be able to get a handle on it.

EDWARDS: Sreenath Sreenivasan is a new media professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism.

The time is 29 minutes past the hour.

LOAD-DATE: May 14, 2002